Independence Day, freedom and the ‘Ministry of Fun’
Celebrating Independence Day 2022 conveys a lot of emotional burden for many Americans on all sides of the political spectrum, as they feel their freedom and independent agency eroding at an accelerating pace. Many Americans felt their freedoms taken away by overreaching government during COVID-19. Other Americans felt freedoms of life choices suddenly wrenched away by the reversal of Roe v. Wade. Everyone feels the enormous restrictions on their lives this year brought on by energy restrictions, inflation and a collapsing economy.
Oddly, an apt but unexpected metaphor has surfaced at Stanford University. The tremendous success and popularity of the school emboldened the governing bureaucracy to launch major social re-engineering of the campus over the past couple of decades, using various formulas to “design housing,” mix students and control campus life. The result seems to have killed what was traditionally an extremely vibrant and exciting campus life that successfully self-organized for over a century. An engaging essay documents the disaster. Most poignant in the essay is that, for a campus that was once vibrant, alive and exciting on weekend evenings, the current campus is defined by … dead silence. As the university became aware of this problem, it turned to the progressive reformers’ best friend — a committee, in this case a Campus Life Committee, or Ministry of Fun, if you will.
Now, for anyone who has gone to Stanford, or any other center of higher learning, or who has taken courses in psychology, philosophy, sociology, politics, management or literature (read “1984”), or who has simply taken 10 minutes to think about what makes real humans tick, you’ll quickly see the thousand problems in this approach. You don’t tell people how to have fun, or create, or get excited about things, or invent, or lead, or do any of the other million things that make people happy, succeed and enjoy life. Given sufficient freedom and opportunity, they simply do it! And, apparently against all odds, they do it very well and responsibly, for the most part. Of course, this misperception is not limited to Stanford. It is growing in all of our educational institutions, the private sector, and in government.
And that brings us to the real, fundamental division in American politics, public policy and governance today. The most important difference of opinion is between those who trust people and those who don’t — or at least those who accumulate power by arguing that people can’t be trusted. It is a most fundamental disagreement on the true nature of people; the engine of fun, creativity, and social progress; and, in this case, American citizens.
And that brings us to the subjects of freedom and independence and the future of the country. Do we want to be a country that is so distrustful of people doing the right thing and so risk-averse that all activity must be designed for zero-risk and controlling behavior, or do we want to be a society that trusts the inherent nature of people to generally make good and thoughtful decisions that creatively move us forward? At this point we seem to be moving toward the zero-risk, controlled society — a model that more often than not becomes stagnant and fails.
Increased government programs, increased regulation, growing deficits, and higher taxes take money and power and agency away from all American citizens and give it to government bureaucrats and politicians to make key decisions on investments, social direction and the lives we each live. It’s little wonder that the massive increase in government spending and regulation over the past two years, combined with the ham-fisted use of government power over the energy sector, has collapsed the American engine of growth and led to economic collapse. It is a classic example of taking freedom and agency away from private citizens and investors and putting it in the hands of government bureaucrats. It is an obvious train wreck that cannot be fixed until we again trust people and put the money and agency back in their hands, i.e., give them freedom and independence.
Social engineering and welfare programs, while initially bringing many out of deep poverty, also regulated and destroyed minority families, were highly paternalistic, and created an eternal cycle of dependence that kept many in perpetual, generational poverty. When Martin Luther King Jr. said “free at last,” he meant that Black Americans would have the freedom and agency to succeed in America. He did not envision the deadly equity trap that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), and the household scold, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), promote — where everything on earth is “free at last.” Black scholars such as Shelby Steele have made it clear that the increased size of government promoted by such progressives takes all freedom and agency away from the poor and minorities.
Of course, there is a classic Faustian Bargain here. As is clear, higher government spending and taxes — including the huge tax of inflation — collapse the economy and make everyone poorer and unhappy. That is the definition of “equity.” Lower taxes, on the other hand, increase investment, increase tax revenues, and make everyone better off and happier. Unemployment drops, wages increase, the economy grows. But, the rich do get much richer. It is not “equity.” It is prosperity, where everyone has a chance, has agency, and has real freedom and independence. It’s a complicated choice, but the answer is pretty clear — except to progressives or those who seek power through division.
In short, 2022 will see one of our most important Independence Days and be one of our most important independence years. Do we want to celebrate a country distinguished by deep trust in its citizens, where everyone feels a strong sense of freedom and agency, or do we want visitors arriving in our country saying, “Wow, it sure is quiet here”?
Grady Means is a writer (GradyMeans.com) and former corporate strategy consultant. He served in the White House as a policy assistant to Vice President Nelson Rockefeller. Follow him on Twitter @gradymeans1.